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A Wake of Hope by Nigel Roth



Sit by the calming waters of Lac Léman and you’ll be instantly transported back in time.

You can marvel at the eternally-enduring Château de Chillon, painted so many times over its lifetime that even I have a painting, from 1921, depicting its grandeur, hanging in my soon-to-be kitchen.

You can recite Lord Byron’s poem about the doomed Francois Bonivard, The Prisoner of Chillon, with an emotional depth Baron George Gordon himself would approve of, or gaze out across the deep waters, reminding yourself that the man who condemned the Stuart King Charles I to a quick and pain-free beheading in 1649 lived out his life over there in Vevey.

You’d know, of course, that the essence of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, was given life on the lake when Mary Wollstonecraft won the contest to write the scariest story, against Percy Bysshe Shelley and Byron, during the endless stormy middle months of 1816, the Year Without a Summer.

You might stand exactly where Empress Elizabeth of Austria was dispatched in 1898, knock on the door of Vladimir Lenin’s summer chalet, visit Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin’s home, or take a stroll where Belgian-born actor Audrey Hepburn showed off the fashion sense that got her inducted into the International Best-Dressed List Hall of Fame, and where English-born playwright and composer Sir Noël Peirce Coward stretched his legs with that unique “combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise"

Alternatively, you can climb aboard a boat.

Not just any boat, but an historic paddle steamer.

You could pretend to ‘mark twain’, the riverboatman’s cry when a two-fathom depth was measured on the sounding line, on the oldest boat the Montreux, built in 1904, the newest, the Rhône III, launched in 1927, or the La Suisse II, Savoie, or Simplon, which took to the water between those years.

But if you wanted to pretend to be Mark Twain rather than just check the draft, you’d need to go a little further back.

As far back as the Spring of 1857, when the A. B. Chambers, a beautifully-crafted and expertly-decorated stern-wheeled paddle steamer, proudly flying the Stars and Stripes from its funnels and along its whitewashed decks, is edging its way through the waters of the mighty Mississippi, navigating “every old snag and one-limbed cottonwood and every obscure wood pile that ornaments the banks of this river”, to reach Natchez, its next stop on its very American journey.

On board, as the boat steams along at a wonderfully-sedate and comparatively-un-American five miles-an-hour, is an apprentice steamboat pilot named Samuel Clemens, not yet Mark Twain, whose career as a riverboatman is just getting underway.